Our two week Iceland road trip planning began months before our September flight. Iceland was expected to have 2 million visitors in 2017. Even though we decided to go after the high season, I read that accommodation can still be difficult to find as there just isn’t enough for all the people coming to Iceland. Thus, by June I had already booked our accommodation, flights and car. That was no easy feat, as we weren’t willing to spend an arm and a leg, nor were we willing to rent a camper van and rough it for two weeks. In the end, the accommodation dictated our itinerary. I tried to space our lodgings out by about 4 hours drive according to Google Maps. I thought this would be a reasonable amount to drive each day, with plenty of stops in between. I quickly discovered that 4 hours on the map can be up to double that depending on the road conditions, the quality of the scenery and opportunities for photos.
I decided to travel clockwise from Reykjavik (Point 12) so that we could be in the West Fjords (Points 2 & 3) earlier and hopefully get better weather, as it can get colder there before the south. We stuck pretty much to the original itinerary, until the last few days, when the weather took a turn for the worse and we had to skip the Westman Islands (Bed icon between Points 10 and 11) due to gale force winds and the ferry potentially being cancelled.
Iceland is easy to navigate. There are not many roads, and some are in less than desirable conditions, but they are well-signed and with the help of a good offline map (we love maps.me– I don’t get any compensation from them) you should have no problem getting around.
We never needed to use cash, but did get a little out at the ATM at the airport just for fun. You can use credit cards everywhere.
We made sure to get gas when we were in big towns, and stocked up on groceries as well, at Bonus and Netto. We brought a small cooler and ice packs with us as well. This allowed us to bring perishables in the car, as we never stayed more than one night anywhere, except Reykjavik.
Buy any alcohol you want at the Reykjavik airport duty free shop – it is far cheaper than the little liquor shops, which also have short hours.
Having more than one driver was also key to our trip, as a few of the days were quite long.
I booked all our accommodation on Booking.com (for their refund policy) and AirBNB (for the smaller towns). This gave me flexibility when some better accommodation did become available closer to our departure. Book in advance and shop around for car rentals. I ended up getting a great deal on a 2015 Citroen Berlingo from Northbound/Thrifty for about 82,000 ISK (before insurance and extra driver cost) for two weeks in September 2017. Similar cars from other companies were often twice that.
Every one speaks English. Icelandic words are long and look unpronounceable, but once you know a few of the basics, you can start to decipher the word, though probably never pronounce correctly. Here are a few key phrases that should help:
Day 1: Arrive Reykjavik airport (Pt A, southwest) 8 am. Pick up rental car and drive to Costco outside Reykjavik. Drive 191 miles (307 km) to Grundarfjordur (Pt. 1) via Snaefells Peninsula.
Day 2: Drive from Grundarfjordur to Bjarkarholt (Pt. 1 to 2, 194 miles/312 km) with lunch stop in Stykkisholmur. Alternately there is an expensive 3 hour ferry across Breidarfjordur.
Brjanslaekur harbor, West Fjords
Day 3: Bjarkarholt to Isafjordur (Pt. 2 to 3, 129 miles/208 km) with stop at Dynjandi waterfall.
Birkimelur hot tub
Day 4: Isafjordur to Laugarbakki (Pt.3 to 4, 222 miles/357 km).
Seals at lowtide in Hestfjörður
Day 5: Laugarbakki to Akureyri (Pt. 4 to 5, north side, 167 miles/269 km) via Vatnsnes peninsula for seal watching.
Low tide at Hvitserkur on the Vatnsnes peninsula in the pouring rain
Basalt fortress of Borgarvirki
Day 6: Akureyri to Husavik (Pt. 5 to 6, 92 miles/148 km) via Godafoss and Myvatn.
Inside the Grjótagjá cave
Lava fields of Dimmuborgir near Mývatn
Day 7: Husavik to Seydisfjordur (Pt. 6 to 7, 170 miles/274 km) via Asbyrgi and Dettifoss.
Hafragilsfoss just below Dettifoss
Yellow fields in East Iceland
Day 8: Seydisfjordur to Eskifjordur (Pt. 7 to 8, 46 miles/74 km) with day trip to highlands and Laugarfell for (dead) reindeer spotting.
Day 9: Eskifjörður to Höfn (Pt. 8 to 9, 151 miles/243 km) with stop at Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach.
Smooth rocky beach at Hvalnes Nature Reserve
Horse near Höfn
Day 10: Höfn to Vik (Pt. 9 to 10, 169 miles/272 km) with stops at Jökulsárlón and Skaftafell National Park. This was a long day due to lack of accommodation in the area.
Svartifoss in Skaftafell
Day 11: Vik to Birkikinn on the Golden Circle (Pt. 10 to 11, 89 miles/143 km) with stops at Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Hellisheidi power plant, Geysir and Gullfoss. Our original itinerary included the Westman islands, but due to gale force winds we were forced to skip that.
Stokkur geyser erupting
Skógafoss in the pouring rain
Seljalandsfoss in the rain
Day 12: Birkikinn to Reykjavik (Pt. 11 to 12, 74 miles/118 km) with stop at Thingvellir National Park.
Our trips are planned according to when I can find the best deals and this trip was no exception. Flying out of Basel can be much cheaper than Zurich, especially if I get a cheap train ticket ahead of time. I managed to find a direct flight from Basel to Marrakech for less than $50. The return was about twice that, but it came to Zurich and had free checked baggage, which was necessary after the shopping we did – more on that later. I also booked most of our accommodation on Booking.com ahead of time. I found the rates to be about the same or cheaper than booking in person, and without the hassle of wandering around looking for a room, which is nearly impossible in the medinas we stayed in. I also booked the car from Hertz ahead of time, I got an incredible rate, and we even got an unnecessary upgrade. The last thing I pre-arranged was our camel trek. This was one of the things I was most excited for and wanted to be sure it went off without a hitch. But for that I just emailed three companies with good reputations online and chose the one who gave me the best deal. So, besides the flights, accommodation, car and camel trek, everything else was up in the air. More or less.
We took the earliest train from Zurich to Basel, which meant we had to walk to the train station because the trams were not yet running. No big deal though because we travel light and each had just a backpack for the 15 minute downhill walk. Luckily, security was light and we cruised through to our gate. Any delay with the trains or airport could have meant a missed flight, we were cutting it that close. Travel karma was on my side this time though, as unusual as that is for me.
We arrived in Marrakech and took the 2 Euro bus to the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. Don’t ask me to pronounce it, we heard it so many different ways. From there we walked about 20 minutes through the medina to our riad. A riad is a Moroccan house with a courtyard. The outsides are nondescript but the insides can be very fancy. Many have been turned into guesthouses. Though we thought we knew where we were going, we still ended up a bit confused and were hustled by two guys who insisted on showing us the way and both getting paid, despite us declining their services. Not a very nice way to start the day. But we made it to the riad, dropped our bags and continued out into the medina.
The medina was a maze and we ended up in dead ends frequently, but that’s the fun of not having a set schedule. We found ourselves near the El-Badi palace right before closing and enjoyed the ruins of the late 1500s palace before heading back to the main square to check out the evening madness.
The next morning, we went to the Ben Joussef Medersa trying to beat the crowds, which we managed for about 5 minutes. A medersa, or madrasa (saw it both ways) is an educational facility, and in Morocco, often used for studying Islam. We visited a number of these, and I found this one the most impressive, as you can wander into the little courtyards surrounded by tiny, dark dorm rooms, which were used for sleeping and studying. There is an incredible amount of intricate woodwork, tilework and plasterwork, everywhere.
From there, we continued to wander the medina for the rest of the day, stopping at El Bahia palace in the afternoon.
El Bahia Palace is only a little over 100 years old, but it has stunning tiles and courtyards. The ceilings were really impressive as well, and it was a great way to get out of the heat for a bit.
Unfortunately, about half of Jemaa El-Fnaa square was under construction, so we didn’t get the full feel of it. However, there were plenty of snake charmers and monkey handlers to go around. I avoided these like the plague, as the animals are mistreated and these exploits should not be encouraged. We ate at one of the stalls (#1), but were weary from hearing about so many people being overcharged for things they didn’t want. We found the food ok, not amazing, nothing to write home about, oh wait, doing that now.
And then the real adventure began! We picked up our rental car, which was our first time renting a car in a foreign country. We got upgraded from a mini size to an economy sized Fiat Punto, but not until we were standing in the lot and the Hertz guy realized they definitely didn’t have the car we booked. We were a bit worried about renting a car, because 1) road conditions, 2) crazy drivers, 3) crashing, 4) not getting an automatic. But really, none of those things turned out to be issues and you can read about our road trip tips here 15 Tips for a Morocco Road trip and our full itinerary here 12 Day Morocco Road Trip.
We drove over the Atlas mountains, which was stunning and perfectly doable in a small car. It is crazy to me for some reason to think of snow in Morocco, but sure enough, there was plenty up there.
Our first stop was Ait Ben Haddou, which is a ksar, or fortified village and a UNESCO site. You might recognize it from Game of Thrones.
The village is largely uninhabited, but there are some families still living in the old clay brick houses. The oldest part is from the 17th century. We found it to be incredibly interesting, but VERY touristy. For instance, it is free to enter, but if you happen to cross the river and don’t take the bridge, someone will try to hustle you for 10 Dh to see the inside of her house, saying that is the only way to enter the village. So, we went back across the river and took the main bridge to avoid this character.
At the top of the village is the old granary, which has excellent views, but staying vertical was nearly impossible due to the wind.
While Ait Ben Haddou was interesting to see, it is very small and we spent a little over an hour there, before getting back in the car and working our way towards the Todra Gorge.
With walls 160 meters (525 ft) tall and an opening slinking to 10 meters (33 ft) wide, the Todra Gorge is really a sight to see. We arrived just before sunset, but the red of the canyon was still striking in the shade. We opted to stay right next to the gorge, so that we could easily check it out again in the morning, in different light. A request from my photographer, of course. It is a popular place for climbers, but having no interest in dangling from little ropes over sharp rocks, we just used it as a stopover to the desert.
The last stretch before the desert was probably the one with the most contrast. We went from vertical walls of rock to mountains of sand, punctuated with palm tree oases in between.
We arrived in Hassilabied a bit early, as the roads were empty and smooth. Hassilabied is near Merzouga, which is the more well-known town for seeing the dunes here. I was hoping to visit the nearby lakes to see flamingos, but was informed that it hadn’t rained in two years, so well, there wasn’t any water, or flamingos. So we went exploring and found a small palmery along the desert and not much else.
After a welcome tajine lunch, we suited up in our head scarves and were assigned camels. Mine was named Jimmy Hendrix and proved to be a bit aloof, despite me bribing him with bread.
We rode about an hour and a half into the desert of Erg Chebbi, which features a dune about 150 meters tall (492 ft).
We made it to our camp in the late afternoon and were pretty impressed with our accommodation, except that the light in our tent didn’t work very well. There were a circle of lined tents to keep out the wind and sand, a round dining area and even a latrine. Much fancier than I expected, though if we had paid an arm and leg more, we could have had a shower too, but that was a different camp.
We spent our downtime sandboarding, playing cards and wandering the dunes.
We felt one night in the desert wasn’t going to be enough, so opted for a two night stay. This turned out perfect, as we were prepared for some downtime and needed a day off from driving. Though riding in the car was significantly more comfortable than riding the camels. We woke up at 6 to see the sunrise and then had a big breakfast before taking the camels further into the desert. We left the camels and our guide at a base camp and climbed the tallest dune, so that we could see Algeria, which was only a few kilometers away.
The border to Algeria is closed now, but you can still get a nice view.
We descended and had lunch at the other camp. We stayed there all afternoon because it was quite hot. Meanwhile, Jimmy Hendrix wandered off and it took our guide an hour to find him. Finding a camel in the desert seems to involve standing on the tallest, nearest dune and waiting for the camel to come into sight. Very high tech. We jokingly told the guide they need to get GPS trackers for the camels.
On the second morning, we once again got up for the sunrise, but it was cloudier. We returned to town, showered, though the power was out, and had breakfast.
Next stop, north through the Ziz Valley to Midelt.
My musings are based on the route below. I can offer little advice for driving in the cities, as we avoided Casablanca and Rabat on this trip. For more information about our itinerary, check out the other Morocco blogs (Coming soon).
Road conditions are good. Our economy sized Fiat Punto had no problems in the mountains or desert, though we did not go off-piste at all. The worst road we encountered was between Fes and Volubilis, where the edges were bumpy.
In the desert, the roads were generally smooth except where water occasionally passes over them. These are marked with this amusing cat-like sign.
Speed limits are well marked and range from 40/60 (in towns) to 120 (toll roads) km per hour. Police radar traps are frequent as are checkpoints. We met a couple whose fine for 68 in a 60 zone was about $20. Drivers will often flash at you to warn about upcoming radar traps. We were waved through all 20 checkpoints we went past, most of which were south of the Atlas mountains.
Gas prices are lower than in Europe. Diesel (Gasoil) was around 9.50 Dh/liter (March 2017) and Unleaded (Sans Plomb) was around 10.50 Dh/liter. There are plenty of gas stations along the main roads.
Moroccan drivers are not all crazy or bad drivers. We found driving in Marrakech and Fes to be hectic, but only a bit crazier than what we’ve encountered in Europe.
Passing and honking are frequent occurrences. Use your blinker when passing and honk to let the other driver know you are coming. Most of the honking we encountered was just friendly beeps alerting us to their passing.
Be alert at traffic lights. If you are too slow to get moving, you will get honked at.
Roundabouts or circles can be confusing. For the majority, you should yield to traffic in the circle and this will be evident by a normal red triangle yield sign. When there is a traffic light to enter the circle, you may be required to stop in the circle and wait for incoming traffic. If there is neither a yield sign or a traffic light, yielding is the best bet.
Watch out for animals and people in the road. Many of the rural roads are used by pedestrians as well as herds of sheep and goats.
Signs are in Arabic and French. Most roads signs are similar to those in Europe.
Avoid scams. We were the unfortunate victim of a gas scam at the Afriquia nearest to the Marrakech airport. Make sure the attendant resets the pump from the previous customer to avoid paying extra. We also read about scams involving people pretending to need assistance, only to take you to their friend’s shop.
Use an app such as maps.me for offline driving directions. We found this app to be generally accurate even though roads were rarely marked.
Rental agencies are required to provide 3rd party liability coverage. Consider booking your car with a credit card that offers additional insurance coverage for car rentals, so you don’t have to use the additional insurance offered.
For entertainment during those long hours, we found the Moroccan FM radio to be decent with a mix of English and Arabic songs. Bring a USB car charger to play your own music and to charge your phone.
Check the spare tire has air and there is a working jack before leaving the rental agency office.
Relax and don’t forget to pull over to enjoy the view (and if you’re Riki, take a few thousand pictures).
Thanks for reading, and check out the other blogs on Morocco for more information.
A continuation of our 3 week road trip this summer in Spain. Be forewarned – this is a long one, but the pictures from Barcelona at the end are worth it. Promise.
The morning after the Spaniards’ wedding, which was the catalyst for this whole trip, we got back in our rental car and headed east toward Bilbao. Luckily, we consulted with our hostess before we left and she recommended an excellent stop along the way, Santillana, which was about midway between Infiesto and Bilbao. The views along the way were incredible and when we reached Santillana, we discovered a historic town, where we had an excellent lunch and stretched our legs along the cobble-stone streets before getting back on the road.
I have no idea where I found out about the Vizcaya Bridge, but I’m quite glad I stumbled upon it in my research before our trip. Just north of Bilbao, the bridge spans the Nervion River. It is a UNESCO site in the Industrial Heritage category, the only one in Spain. Designed by Alberto Palacio, one of Eiffel’s disciples it is essentially a gondola over the water that carries 6 cars and something like 200 people. The gondola trip takes 90 seconds and costs 35 cents for pedestrians. However, if you want to take an elevator to the top and walk across, it costs 7 Euro and can take almost an hour, in my experience.
We continued inland and reached Bilbao late in the afternoon. We checked out the old quarter, or Casco Viejo that evening and meandered along the waterfront. With the Guggenheim being the only main attraction we wished to see, we only scheduled one night in Bilbao.
The next morning we walked to the Guggenheim, enjoying the riverfront along the way.
On our way back to pick up the car, we saw an unfortunate bike accident where a lady went head first into the pavement and wasn’t moving. My first thought was to call 911, but then of course realized that wouldn’t work in Spain and made a mental note to look up the proper number (112 in case you were wondering). Luckily, there were many other better equipped people who rushed to her aid.
We continued south east and stopped for lunch in Puente de la Reina, where they have a medieval bridge. This was a spontaneous stop, something we would not have seen had we been stuck on a bus, or plane or train. The town is just south of Pamplona, which is famous for the Running of the Bulls, which was only two days away. We decided to skip Pamplona to avoid the crazy crowds and spend more time in Barcelona. Though we did see a fair amount of people headed there or returning from the festival.
I spent an incredible amount of time planning this trip, having 3 companions and a set amount of time, it was quite different than what I am used to. When I asked my parents where they wanted to go, mostly I got vague answers that centered around museums and art. But when I asked Riki, he said the desert. And I thought he’d gone mad, until he showed me the pictures. Even then I didn’t really believe a desert could be located so close to the French border. But it is, and that is how we ended up in Olite.
Olite is a tiny town with an incredible palace. The palace is almost entirely reconstructed since a fire in the 1800s, but it is still an amazing site to see and in typical fashion, my photographer was the last one out at closing time.
That evening, as we sat on the main plaza right in front of our hotel, we were inundated with rain and privy to an amazing lightning storm (so much water that our room’s windows started leaking).
“The light will be better” is a phrase I have grown accustomed to. And a phrase that has changed many a plan around. This was no exception. Our overnight in Olite allowed us to get up early and head to Bardenas Reales, the desert Riki wanted to see, “when the light would be best.” And come to think of it, so would the temperature. The landscape is incredible and the abrupt entry into a desert environment is daunting. The unfortunate thing is that this vast expanse of arid land was man made by deforestation. A unique habitat was created however, and is now protected. Evidence of the massive rain storm was scarcely visible when we arrived and even less so by the time we left a few hours later.
We stopped briefly in Tudela for a supermarket lunch, as it was not yet 1:00, so none of the restaurants had food yet. Then we high-tailed it straight to Barcelona, where we promptly ditched the car for three days in favor of walking and public transit to avoid the maze of one way and forbidden streets.
This being my third trip to Barcelona, it would seem I would be an expert. But, no. Barcelona is changing rapidly and I’m not sure it’s for the best. They simply have too many tourists. The city stopped issuing licenses for new tourist accommodations last year, but that just drove the prices up. The tourists are still coming, and it’s obvious why. Barcelona is a cool place, set right on the water, with an expansive beach, it offers unique architecture, delicious food and loads of culture. A perfect combination that they are worried will turn them into a Spanish Venice, so dependent on tourism that the locals and their businesses are driven out.
La Sagrada Familia is changing as well, but let’s be honest, it’s about time. They plan to be finished in 10 more years (144 years after construction began). The ticket process has changed since my last visit (which was only two years ago). I had assumed we would go there early in the morning, wait in the long line and get our tickets for later in the morning. So when no line awaited us as we approached the entrance I was a bit confused. And when the sign said the next entry wasn’t for 5 hours, I was annoyed that I didn’t check before. It seems they have gone digital and almost everyone buys their tickets online ahead of time. We got incredibly lucky though, a group of 4 had canceled and we were able to enter 45 minutes later, which gave us time to grab breakfast before our scheduled entrance.
This was my third visit (my first being almost 10 years ago) and it’s incredible to see the difference. On my first visit, the nave was completely covered in plastic sheets and we could only walk in a single file line around the edge. The facades were not nearly as complete and the towers not as tall. Now we were able to wander the nave with our audio guides with 1000 other people gawking at the columns, glass and structure.
One of the most interesting parts of La Sagrada Familia is going to the museum in the basement to see all the models and how Gaudi designed the building. It is too bad he won’t get to see the completion, but he would have had to live to 174 years old.
We followed up our visit to La Sagrada Familia with another Gaudi creation, Parc Guell. However, things have changed there as well and all the tickets for that time were sold out already and we couldn’t get in for another 5 hours. So we walked around the outside, toured the Gaudi house museum and went home for a quick siesta before hitting the streets again to wander.
My parents spent their last day in Barcelona at more Gaudi buildings, where Riki and I had already been on our last trip. We spent the day wandering, taking pictures (him), shopping (me) and laying on the beach because the water was too chilly to swim (for both of us).
Coming soon: Part 3 – South – Granada, Cordoba and up to Toledo
When I asked Riki to get together pictures from our trip to Spain this summer, he gave me a thumb drive per usual with some selected photos. But since this thumb drive contained over 1300 photos from just the first week of our trip, it has taken me awhile to get this blog together. That, and I’ve been busy learning German. Our 17 day road trip around Spain with my parents began and ended in Madrid, and so will this blog. However, it will be in 3 parts due to the enormous amount of pictures.
This part will cover our first week, up until the wedding in Infiesto. The next will cover from Bilbao to Barcelona and the last will be the south; Granada, Cordoba and then back to Madrid, via Toledo. The photos are organized in mosaics for space reasons – just click on a picture to make it larger.
We met up with my parents at the Madrid airport, having flown from Zurich and they having flown from the US. From there, we took the train to Atocha Train Station and walked to our rented apartment, which turned out to be tiny and not air-conditioned, but very well located.
A master of all things free, I had researched the free hours of the Madrid art museums and we were able to visit the Reina Sophia, Thyssen Bornemisza and the Prado all for nothing. As the master of good views, Riki had researched the Belles Artes building and we were able to get great views of downtown Madrid from the top, though not for free.
Our trip coincided with Gay Pride week so the city was decorated with rainbows and we witnessed a festive parade in one of the squares. The rest of our two days in Madrid were spent enjoying the heat, wandering the lively streets, and eating.
Though we really enjoyed Madrid, I was anxious to get on the road and see the rest of the country. We picked up our rental car, packed it to the gills with our luggage and headed about an hour outside of Madrid to Segovia, a UNESCO site and home to a 2nd century Roman aqueduct. It also has an incredible Alcazar (fortress) that we climbed for nice views (another Riki find). It was here that we first witnessed the huge white storks, which nest on the tops of trees and buildings.
After lunch, we got back in the car and headed to Ávila, another UNESCO site, about an hour away. Ávila is known for its 12th c. walls and we walked over a kilometer of them and through the small city before getting back in the car.
From there, we drove about another hour to Salamanca, another UNESCO site, where we would spend two nights. Salamanca is a university town and full of small walking streets, and the mandatory Plaza Mayor. It is an incredibly beautiful city and we were lucky enough to have two charming friends here. We ate delicious food and even bought 2 kilos of jamón ibérico, the maximum allowed to export to Switzerland. If only we were allowed to take the whole leg.
Our next stop was León, which is known for its Gothic cathedral with incredible stained glass. Since Riki didn’t actually go in the cathedral, I don’t have pictures, but I have an abundance of street art and graffiti shots he took while my mom and I toured the church. We had lunch here and then continued onto our main destination, Infiesto, the wedding location.
On the drive from Leon to Asturias, before crossing the mountains and everything turned to dense fog.
So the whole point of this trip was to see my Spaniard get married in Infiesto, Asturias. But Riki doesn’t have a single photo on his camera from the town or the event. So I had to steal some from the phone. Infiesto is a tiny place, set in an amazing location. The wedding was great fun, with a great view, amazing food and definitely a worthy cause.
My dad bought a cider bottle opener.
Married in a cave.
Right before the firecrackers
She doesn’t want to leave me.
First selfie stick
First family selfie with a stick. Unfortunately, this is the best we could do.